The Electoral College

Barb Underhill of Utah suggested this post topic: “Wonder what our Founding Fathers would think of the role of the Electoral College today? My thought is that the rural states gain a big enough voice through their (our) equal numbers in the Senate, regardless of population… In Utah, no matter what or when, the electoral votes will always be Republican, so nobody’s vote matters. It makes no sense to me why my neighboring swing states of Nevada and Colorado mean more to the parties and candidates than my state. 3rd parties haven’t a prayer with winner take all.”

Barb, I’ll start with a brief review of the Electoral College. The Founders sought to prevent tyranny wherever they thought it could arise. One source of tyranny was what they called the tyranny of the majority – the many ganging up on the few. You rightly noted that they curbed this source of tyranny in law making by providing two seats in the Senate for each State, large or small, and by making the Senate at least equal to the House of Representatives in law making power.

It is also important to note the more basic curb on the tyranny of the majority in law making – representation. As a republic, we elect representatives to act for us rather than having direct votes on every law. This provides a more deliberative environment for laws to be thought out.

In the same way, the Electoral College is designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority in the election of the President. When the people in a State vote for President, they are voting for representatives called Electors. The Electors in each State cast their votes in the Electoral College as the representatives of those who voted in that State.

If we had direct elections of the President, a few States could cooperate to tyrannize the rest. California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are nearly one-fourth of our population. And, the populations of Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are nearly one-fifth. The winner-take-all rule in each State further reduces the chance that an interest group could tyrannize the minority through a nationwide maneuver.

In addition to their desire to prevent a tyranny of the majority, the Founders also wanted to encourage an honest voting process. If anything, the campaigns then were more dishonest than they are today. Registration and vote buying were common, electoral corruption, voter intimidation at the polls, multiple voting, and voting by the dead and by non citizens were tried everywhere.

So, the voting “irregularities” of today would be familiar to the Founders. Suppression of military voting through bureaucratic “bungling,” on the other hand, would have been unthinkable to them and a source of outrage and condemnation.

The Founders discouraged electoral dishonesty by opening the Presidential electoral process to view. Although then, as now, Electors pledged their support to candidates in advance, the Electors of that day were more thoughtful than are today’s Electors, who with rare exceptions vote as they have pledged in a process that no one sees.

Ultimately, “irregularities” are rarely on a scale that makes a difference. In that sense, no one person’s vote “counts,” although votes in swing states don’t count less than those in states with heavy majorities. We are unlikely to see another Florida 2000, yet the Presidential election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 may have been even more tumultuous. In the Electoral College vote, Jefferson and Aaron Burr came out tied. That threw the election into the House of Representatives where Jefferson was finally elected after 36 ballots.

In sum, the system is operating today pretty much as the Founders intended. They would have urged you to vote, despite knowing that you are in a state where most vote one way. You never know. As to third parties, the Founders would have urged you to get together with like-minded people to see what you could do.

Now, you may be curious about pledging by Electors and whether they are true to their pledges. History is full of exceptions and I’ll talk about them in a future post.

 

 

 

 

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